One is now two (make that three). We got married in 2012, joining forces in our lives and in our philanthropy. Fortunately, our approaches are remarkably aligned. Long before we met, Mary fused analytical thinking with social change. At MIT, she alternated taking classes with working with the Girl Scouts. As a software engineer, she took time off to travel in the developing world and work with non-profits. Most recently, she was a Coro Fellow in public affairs.
In 2013, our son was born. We look like any other young family, because we are. We’re juggling home and work responsibilities (Craig’s now at Khan Academy) – and figuring out how philanthropy fits in.
What's remained the same in our philanthropy: Our passion doesn’t lie in one particular issue. We’re passionate about being effective – in converting our resources to real, sustainable change. That’s why we continue to invest in the global South, where we think our money can go further. And that’s why we continue to focus on girls’ education, an idea that we still believe can change the world. We’re still intent on giving our wealth away in our lifetimes. We don’t want to leave behind any lasting institutions, just lasting change.
What’s new? A clearer understanding that philanthropy is a skill that can be learned. In some ways, this is the most important realization from the last five years. Effective giving takes expertise and experience. By getting started now, we’re learning and course-correcting as we go, ensuring our lifetime work has a better chance of being effective. We’ve come to accept that we can’t learn as quickly as we’d like, given the competing demands of work and family, but we still find the experience immensely valuable. As we navigate this path, we hope to inspire others to engage in philanthropy at earlier stages in their lives.
We went public with our giving. It’s hard to inspire others when nobody knows what you’re doing, so in May 2014, we signed the Giving Pledge, which formalizes and makes public our commitment to give away a minimum of half our wealth. Until that point, we had remained mostly anonymous in our funding, afraid of unsolicited requests and attention, and not yet ready to invest the time and energy required of a visible donor. But as we looked to expand our range of supported projects, anonymity became increasingly burdensome. We needed to involve the best thinkers and organizations in girls’ education, and we couldn’t do that without them knowing who we are.
We went professional. This was the most important, and most difficult, change we made. We knew that we couldn’t devote the time we needed to managing the philanthropy ourselves. But we also knew we didn’t have the time or skills to hire and manage a slew of employees. We knew the people we hired had to have a lot of experience, since we didn’t. Our solution was to hire sophisticated and experienced consultants to help guide our decisions. This solution might not work for everyone -- it can be as hard to find good consultants as good employees, and we were definitely lucky on that score -- but it has made our continued work possible.
We sharpened our giving framework. We’ve maintained a portfolio approach, with specific processes that work for us and take our grantees’ practical needs into account. Originally the division was 70% girls’ education, 20% personal, and 10% family; over time we realized we were having trouble filling some of the categories and running out of space in others. Now we have a simpler division: 25% to personal, family and friend giving, and 75% to girls’ education.
But within each category we have several buckets. For personal giving, we bucket by size: one large gift per year, several medium gifts, and many small gifts. The size of the bucket determines whether the giving decision is joint or individual.
The girls’ education portfolio also has buckets, like so:
- 70%: Core giving to mostly mid-sized NGOs that meet our primary criteria -- developing world and girls’ education -- and have high potential. This is steady and reliable giving, in keeping with grantees’ needs. We start with an assumption of a long-term partnership. We find leadership, methods and work we believe in, and as long as those remain consistent, we continue our support. If changes do occur, we give at least a year's notice so we don't jeopardize our partners' stability through unexpected funding shifts.
- 20%: Short-term support to projects that meet our primary criteria, and can be supported through one-time grants. These may have a limited timeframe, benefit from quick funding decisions, involve new organizations we are considering for deeper involvement, or be one-time projects with existing partners. This bucket ensures we can support these opportunities without jeopardizing our core funding.
- 10%: Experimental giving to emerging innovations. These are high-risk and labor intensive, so we often leverage funding consortiums or other organizations’ monitoring and due diligence to help evaluate and identify these creative opportunities. This bucket also includes projects that have a focus-dilution risk: for instance, we might fund a program that lacks a focus on girls, with the hope that girls will benefit disproportionately from it. Funding these programs means having a tolerance for failures. We make room for learning, not only for our grantees but ourselves.
We’ve further defined our giving principles. We want to support innovation, creativity, outstanding evaluation, local and regional system change – and we want to see this all driven from the developing world. These are ambitions that would typically be labor- and expertise-intensive for a US-based funder. We adhere to the following principles to minimize that cost:
- We don't fund leaders, organizations or approaches that we don't understand. That might sound basic, but as rapidly learning philanthropists, it can be easy to go the other way. This direction is not just a good practical choice, but it’s a filter for ensuring our investments stay on strategy.
- We continue to leverage others' due diligence, even while we’re developing our own expertise. Relying on grant-making partners helps us move funds to smaller groups in the global South that don’t pop up on our radar.
- We place our trust in outstanding leaders who value rigorous analysis, brutal self-assessment and course-corrections when necessary. Once we’ve identified these leaders, we defer to their judgment about the grant’s use, and we don’t limit ‘overhead’ or ‘administration’ funding. The best talent, infrastructure building, research and planning can be expensive.
- We seek local experience and knowledge, recognizing the limits to our ability to conduct effective due diligence on NGO’s in foreign settings. When funding US-based organizations, we look for leaders who are guided by input from the communities where we are funding.
Finally, the other big change we’ve made is we established an organization and gave it a name: Echidna Giving. What’s an echidna? A goofy animal Craig got a kick out of when visiting Australia. Why be goofy? We firmly believe you can and must be playful when creating new realities in the world, even when – maybe especially when – you’re doing serious, important, slow-progress work.
It’s still hard to measure that progress and the change we’re making. Those answers haven’t come as readily as our vision, frameworks and principles. But we’re glad we’re getting started now, and glad we’re not doing it alone.